No player may turn out to be more important to the offensive output of the USA Men’s Hockey Team than Phil Kessel. A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Kessel first caught the eye of the U.S. National Team Development Program in the 2003-04 season as a 16-year-old.
Kessel was a natural scorer playing for the U.S. Under-18 team, and soon found himself courted by the University of Minnesota. He played with Minnesota in his only college season in 2005-06, scoring 18 goals and 33 assists in just 39 games. Though he did put up decent numbers, his role diminished as the season wore on.
He was a highly-touted prospect who was originally viewed in the same vein as the elite prospects who were selected in the 2005 NHL Draft (Sidney Crosby, Bobby Ryan, Jack Johnson, Carey Price, etc.), which Kessel missed by a month. Instead, he was drafted fifth overall (after Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews and Nicklas Backstrom) by the Boston Bruins.
Kessel had some trouble in his first year with the Bruins in 2006-07, scoring 29 points in 70 games with Boston. He followed that up with 19 goals and 37 points. He was establishing himself as a useful and responsible young player at this point in his career. 2008-09 was his true breakout year, as he had 36 goals and 60 points, proving that his value as a young player was high.
At that point, there were some who thought that total may have been just a fluke. However, Kessel was on the verge of something bigger.
In September of 2009, Kessel was surprisingly sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a 2010 first-round pick, a 2010 second-round pick and a 2011 first-round pick. The picks became Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and Dougie Hamilton. This is when Kessel’s career really took off.
Kessel has been invaluable to the Toronto Maple Leafs, scoring 30 goals in four of the five seasons with the Leafs. Last season, the strike limited him to 48 games and 20 goals. This year, he already has 30 goals and is certainly in position to score at least 40. Kessel played in the Olympics already in 2010 and will be counted on to produce. He will use his speed on the large ice to take advantage of defenses that are not yet ready for his ability and pace.